Despite the California Golden Bears best efforts to give the game away late, the Washington State Cougars couldn’t complete the comeback, losing 42-39. The loss drops WSU to 4-6, needing to win out to keep their bowl streak alive.
Cal (4-6, 2-5 in Pac-12) had the game in hand after taking back a third Cam Ward fumble for a score to go up 42-24. After a WSU (4-6, 1-6) touchdown, Cal fumbled on the ensuing drive, leading to another WSU touchdown to make the game 42-39. A missed field goal and a failed Hail Mary in the final minute sealed the game.
WSU faced a tough decision on the games opening drive. Electing to go for it on a 4th and 1 from the Cal 46, the offense ran the famous “tush-push”, which has been successful for the Cougs so far this season. Unfortunately, Ward couldn’t get pushed across the first down marker, colliding into a sea of bodies. Before the refs ruled the play dead, the ball was ripped from Ward’s arms and recovered by Cade Uluave who ran it all the way back for the games first touchdown. The game quickly looked on pace for another blowout after Ward’s three straight incompletions gave Cal the ball back. Cal took advantage. Fernando Mendoza and Jayden Ott teamed up to take the Bears 65 yards on 12 plays for a touchdown to go up two scores not even 10 minutes in to the game.
On the ensuing drive, Jake Dickert put the game on the line. On a 4th and 1 from their own 34, Carlos Hernandez just barely got across the line to gain to keep the drive ,and really the game, alive. WSU’s offense slowly made their way down field and Ward finished the long 14-play drive with a three-yard touchdown run.
The Golden Bears quickly responded, driving right down the field. On a 2nd and goal from the six-yard line, Ott took a carry up the middle to the goal line, but just before he could push his way in, he put the ball on the turf. Naturally, the ball falls right below a Cal offensive lineman who jumps on it to score the touchdown.
Its been a rarity over the past six weeks to see the Cougs get themselves right back into a game right away, but that’s exactly what they did on the next drive. The offense chipped away, taking short plays and some penalty help from Cal to go 69 yards on nine plays, capping it off on a short pass to Cooper Mathers.
A Cal punt gave the Cougars a prime opportunity to mount a game-tying drive. After finding Kyle Williams on 2nd and 18 for a gain of 25, Ward tried to escape pressure by rolling backwards, taking not only a sack, but losing the football for his second fumble of the game. A 4th and 4 pass from the WSU 13 to Ott for a touchdown gave Cal a 28-14 lead and all the momentum with 3:11 before halftime. Freshman running back Leo Pulalasi entered the game and sparked the Cougar offense. Pulalasi took the first four plays of the drive for four carries and 35 yards all the way to the Cal 35 and carried a key 4th and 1 for just enough yards to keep the drive alive inside the Cal 10. John Mateer entered two plays later to get the final five yards needed on a keeper to bring the game back within seven before half.
The fumble luck finally shifted the other way to open the second half as Brennan Jackson got his paws on Mendoza’s windup to spring the ball loose for his roommate Ron Stone Jr. to recover. WSU couldn’t convert a 3rd and 3, forcing them to settle for a Dean Janikowski 28-yarder. Three straight combined punting drives were broken up when WSU got inside the 15 on a pass interference call just before the end of the third quarter.
Both teams have dreaded the fourth quarter this season. Entering the ball game, Cal’s fourth quarter point differential was -37, tied for 120th in FBS. As for the Cougs, -44 and 125th. Something had to give.
On a huge 3rd and 7, Ward seemingly found Kyle Williams on a screen play over the middle that got them to the two-yard line until a yellow flag appeared. Pulalasi was whistled for offensive pass interference trying to run the pick play, setting WSU back to the 25. A third down incompletion brought on Janikowski for a 42-yarder he pushed wide left. Two plays later, Ott sped right past the Cougar defense for 52 yards before finally being caught by Sam Lockett III. He polished off the drive with three more carries and a touchdown. Any momentum WSU had left quickly faded away from the Pacific coast and followed the Golden Bears to the Atlantic Coast when Ward fumbled away his third turnover that Nohl Williams scoop’d and scored for the dagger Golden Bears touchdown. In just under four minutes, WSU went from bringing the game within one, to down 17.
The Cougars were left with no choice but to start marching and at the very least try to make the score look a little more respectful. Things nearly became a full disaster before the march could start when WSU nearly muffed the squib kick before recovering. Ward completed passes for 11, 15 and 11 yards into Cal territory to kick off the drive. A 12-yard third down conversion to Williams and a following 21-yard touchdown pass to Josh Kelly pulled the Cougs back within 12. Ward finds Djouvenski Schlenbaker for the two point conversion, 10-point game with 7:33 to go.
WSU’s comeback odds skyrocketed on Cal’s second play of the ensuing drive. Ott’s carry up the middle was nearly good for a first down until Kyle Thornton ripped the ball free and into the mitts of Lockett. Five players later, Schlenbaker is taking a Ward pass into the end zone. Three point game, 5:35 remaining.
Cal’s three-and-out only drains 1:50 before punting. From 17-down with the ball on the turf nearly giving Cal near a free chance to expand on that lead, the Cougars have found themselves with a chance to take the lead. Schlenbaker started the drive with four straight touches with the last being a huge six-yard carry on 4th and 1. On the next play, a Ward to Mathers completion was wiped out when the officials ruled the play was dead due to an injured Cal player. Here is a video of the Cal player going down.
Here is the play that wiped out WSU's completion to Cooper Mathers. Looks like a Cal coach instructed safety Patrick McMorris to go down with an injury. pic.twitter.com/9vZ2KMFxMp— Greg Woods (@GregWWoods) November 12, 2023
WSU did get the first down three plays later, but stalled out at the Cal 31 on 3rd and 6. With under a minute to go, Janikowski trotted out with a chance to tie but again pushed the field goal just wide left. The Cougs used all three of their remaining timeouts on Cal’s three and out to get the ball back with one last chance at a miracle with 22 seconds to go. Ward heaved up a Hail Mary from the WSU 47 as the clock expired that was batted up in the air and fell into the hands of a Uluave to finish the game.
The Cougars will host the Colorado Buffaloes on Friday for their final Pac-12 home game.